The Meaning Behind “California Gurls” by Katy Perry and What the Title’s Spelling Is An Homage to

Katy Perry released Teenage Dream in 2010 and closed out a decade of cheerful guitar-pop dominating the charts. The following year, Adele conquered the music world with moody introspection, and Lorde arrived next, saying she’d never seen a diamond in the flesh on “Royals.” Optimism and guitars were so passé.

Videos by American Songwriter

Before the doom-and-gloom of real life took over, the breezy “California Gurls” became one of five No. 1 hits from Perry’s album, matching the record set by Michael Jackson’s Bad in 1987. Her songs were like sugar for the masses, and everyone’s brains fired off a collective reward system wanting more.

Life looked easy in Perry’s Willy Wonka universe, but it wasn’t always so. She grew up in a Pentecostal household forbidding popular music. She began her career recording a Christian album before becoming the technicolor, prude-triggering, “Firework” pop star.

Her breakthrough song, “I Kissed a Girl,” shouldn’t have been controversial in 2010 but was still naughty enough to cause a stink, which only helped its success. Ultimately, she became what her preacher parents tried to stop.

On “California Gurls,” the Santa Barbara native wrote a saccharine love song for her home state.

California Love

Perry told Rolling Stone she wanted a California song to answer Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ New York-loving “Empire State of Mind.” She said everybody had a New York song, but what about California? Perry claimed, “It’s been a minute since we’ve had a California song.” If you forget about the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ entire catalog of California songs, that’s one hot minute.

“California Gurls” is a summertime anthem ticking all the Daisey Dukes and bikini top boxes you’d want in a beach jam. There’s sex on the beach, and Perry trudges through sand in stilettos over a Prince-like guitar riff.

I know a place where the grass is really greener
Warm, wet, and wild, there must be something in the water
Sippin’ gin and juice
Laying underneath the palm trees (undone)
The boys break their necks
Tryna to creep a little sneak peek (at us)

Snoop Dogg appears on the track to add West Coast rap, while tan people freak in Jeeps in a nonstop party where Snoop ends up squeezing someone’s buns.

Toned, tanned, fit, and ready
Turn it up ’cause it’s gettin’ heavy
Wild, wild west coast
These are the girls I love the most
The girl’s a freak, she drive a Jeep
And live on the beach
I’m OK, I won’t play
I love the Bay, just like I love L.A.

Keeping everybody in the wild, wild West, Perry’s song fades with a wink to 2Pac’s “California Love.”

Big Star

As Perry progressed from One of the Boys to Teenage Dream, she reinvented her look. Betty Paige replaced her previous Betty Boop-inspired fashion. She also played with spelling, inspired by Memphis legends Big Star.

The song’s spelling is a nod to Big Star’s “September Gurls,” which came about through her manager. Alex Chilton died in 2010, and Perry’s manager asked her to change the title to “California Gurls” as a tribute.


With the same title as The Beach Boys classic, Perry gestures to the California past. Absorbing her title as more than a gesture, Rondor Music, which publishes Brian Wilson and Mike Love, threatened a lawsuit against Perry’s label, Capitol Records, because of similarities between the two songs. Snoop Dogg’s original rap included the lyric, I wish they all could be California girls but later changed it to avoid the lawsuit.

Wilson told the Los Angeles Times Pop & Hiss that he liked Perry’s updated homage to his song. Flattered by her reference, he said, “I love her vocal. … She sounds clear and energetic.”

Candy and Whipped Cream

The music video for “California Gurls” is set in a virtual Candy Land, an edible reinterpretation of the board game Perry called “Candyfornia.”

Snoop Dogg plays “Sugar Daddy,” who holds girls in captivity, while Perry’s character fights to free them. She battles Snoop’s army of gummy bears, defeating them by shooting whipped cream guns attached to her breasts.

Sugar-Coated Getaway

The irony of Perry’s restricted childhood leading to the color burst of her career is well-documented, and her flirtatious pop art shows the limitations of trying to hide the world from children.

However, pop isn’t limited to bubblegum and has evolved to more challenging themes and musical arrangements. But the simple, delicious earworms persist. It’s like when people try to be healthy and drink those green juices, but sometimes you really just want to crush a donut.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Ashley McBryde and Wynonna Judd perform onstage during the 2023 CMT Music Awards at Moody Center on April 02, 2023 in Austin, Texas

Ashley McBryde Opens Up About Her Relationship with Wynonna Judd: “She Might Be Angelic”